Civilisation (2)

In reading Civilisation, I kept a mental checklist of the characteristics which Clark regards as necessary to a civilisation (references are to the recent paperback edition):-

1. Solidity

He’s keen on built form being one of its basic characteristics, building for eternity, as in baroque Rome, and contemptuous of what he describes as the wigwams of the Vikings (or what he quaintly describes as their ‘prefabs’). ‘If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a Minister of Housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings’ (p.9).

2. Confidence

‘Of course, civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity – enough to provide a little material prosperity. But, far more, it requires confidence – confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers’ (p.12).

3. Internationalism

‘Where some way of thought or human activity is really vital to us, internationalism is accepted unhesitatingly’ (p.35). The book is regarded as being very Eurocentric, but in his frame of reference Clark reveals his internationalism.

4. The capacity to change

‘The great, indeed the unique, merit of European civilisation has been that it has never ceased to develop and change’ (p.65).

5. Heroic will

In his two chapters on the Renaissance, Clark introduces a dialctic between ‘humanist virtues of intelligence’ and ‘the quality of heroic will’. He constantly cautions against thinking that civilisation is a matter of courtesy or civilitas (‘the civilised smile of eighteenth-century France may be one of the things that have brought the whole concept of civilisation into disrepute’ (p.197). He is much more on the side of heroic individualism, the spirit of Michelangelo, rather than Raphael. ‘I suppose that this quality, which I may call heroic, is not part of most people’s idea of civilisation’ (p.103). But it was of Clark’s: ‘it involves a contempt of convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilised life…in the end, civilisation depends on man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost’.

This may not be a particularly profound apparatus for analysing civilisation, but then Clark always felt that he lacked a good capacity for intellectual generalisation; and what he may lack in intellectual theorising, he makes up in intelligent, wide-ranging and occasionally ironic urbanity.

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One thought on “Civilisation (2)

  1. Very true. It will be interesting to see how the present three compare. They are almost certainly intellectually stronger but, as you imply, that isn’t necessarily the crucial characteristic. They will have less time to savour individual buildings which was one of the delights of Clark, and one of his great strengths .. .. ..

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